The human cost of delaying safer street design

Jul 26, 2018
The human cost of delaying safer street design

Bike Auckland

Our hearts sank when two weeks ago, we saw reports on social media about an incident at the pedestrian crossing on Victoria Rd near Calliope Rd in Devonport.

Councillor Chris Darby followed up on those initial reports, and we now have it confirmed by police that a person was indeed hit by a vehicle at the pedestrian crossing on the morning of 10 July. As of last Friday, they were still in Auckland Hospital recovering from serious injuries. Our deepest sympathy goes to them and their family.

The human cost of delaying safety decisions

Since 2014, we’ve been covering progress (mainly the lack of it) in fixing this locally notorious crossing, which is home to a school patrol morning and afternoon. Designs have been bounced back and forth between Auckland Transport and the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board, occasionally emerging for public consultation… and nothing has changed on the ground.

In May 2017, we responded forcefully to quibbles about the budget. At the time, the chair of the Local Board expressed the opinion that the crossing was ‘relatively safe’ as it was, while the deputy chair said the $200,000 budget for improvement ‘didn’t sit easy’ with him, and the changes (which included adding protection for people on bikes) ‘would be unpopular with local residents.’

Local resident speaks out on popularity of safety upgrade.

In October 2017, we reported in despair that AT appeared to be considering removing bike lanes from the design altogether, a real low point. The design process has thankfully moved on since then. But in effect, years of procrastination have maintained a dangerous status quo, and now sadly we have someone seriously injured as a result.

Based on the most recent statistics, this person will be one of well over 600 people seriously injured on Auckland’s streets in the last year; with around fifty lives lost on our roads in the same time period. Councillor Chris Darby paints the picture of this urgent citywide concern:

Chris Darby with Barb Cuthbert, Garth Barfoot and Phil Twyford (Lightpath Festival 2017)

Addressing road safety is not something that can be parked up for another day. Between 2014 and 2017, we have seen road deaths and serious injuries in Auckland increase at more than five times the rate of travel and more than three times the rate of the rest of New Zealand.

On average, there is at least one death or serious injury on Auckland’s road every day. In the 14 months waiting to address the Victoria/Calliope intersection we have seen another avoidable crash, causing serious injury to a pedestrian.”

The good news

We understand Auckland Transport is at work on a new design with much more robust safety features than the original proposals. In due course, the design will be forwarded to the Local Board and then go out for public consultation. On the usual timeline, if approved for implementation, it most likely wouldn’t be built until 2019.

It’s too late for the person currently in hospital – and we hope no further injuries or worse will happen in the meantime – but we’re relieved to see a solid design on the way that finally puts safety first for the most vulnerable people on the road.

The wider context

The new ten-year budget includes a dramatic increase in funding for safety projects – a welcome development, although AT has yet to detail how it will be spent. This location in Devonport strikes us as a strong example of how the new safety budget could be applied to projects that have gotten ‘stuck in the system’.

The ten-year budget also doubled the Local Board Transport Capital Fund. This unlocks all sorts of potential for healthy, active neighbourhoods, building greenways, creating safe routes to schools, making town centres safer and nicer places to be, and fixing long-standing black spots.

And yet: across the city, local boards are already sitting on considerable budget for transport projects, with no clear idea what to spend the accrued money on, and no immediate plan for the extra new funding. While some local boards are joining the dots in clever and strategic ways, others are nervous or uninformed about how best to apply the new resources.

It’s not clear whether the funding is tied to walking, cycling, and safety in particular – even though that’s how it was framed in the long-term budget announcement. In theory, without strong guidelines, this money could all be spent on shiny new park-and-rides, pleasing voters perhaps – but pouring more cars onto local streets, and neglecting crucial local fixes.

And what happens when a Local Board puts popularity before safety? As we’ve seen in Devonport and no doubt elsewhere, the risk is that saving votes may trump saving lives.

Depoliticising street design

Clearly, Local Boards are a key stakeholder for local developments – but should they have decision-making power as to how transportation funds are allocated in their area, especially when it comes to safety?

We say that role should sit firmly with AT, which has both the expertise and delegated authority from Auckland Council. In particular, high-level mandates from AT coupled with sound engineering judgement should prevail over prevarications and ill-informed pronouncements by Local Board members who do not necessarily have the expertise to decide on transportation issues and safety, and who may be more concerned with popularity and re-election.

This is a crucial moment for our city, as Auckland Council has set Vision Zero as part of the new Auckland Plan 2050, and as we wait to see how Auckland Transport acts on its recent harrowing safety audit.

Both Council and AT might take inspiration from Transport for London’s brand new Vision Zero Action Plan, which not only puts safety first, but makes the positive case for livable, healthy, actively delightful streets. By expanding the conversation beyond simply eliminating deaths and serious injuries, to a vision of a place we can all be proud to live in, a transportation agency can bring people along with them and deliver great results. We live in hope.

The Healthy Streets Approach, as created by Lucy Saunders (who’ll be giving a public talk at Auckland Conversations on 2 August).

Bringing it home

At moments like this, it can be hard not to feel as advocates that if we’d fought harder, shouted louder, this latest casualty might not have happened. We know many of you have taken the time to make an impassioned plea for safety here (and elsewhere), and will be feeling as shocked as we are by the slow progress and yet another fellow Aucklander paying the price.

Have yoga mat, will ride: Paul Steely White arrives in Auckland

It’s important to remember that the responsibility for bringing design up to scratch ultimately sits on the shoulders of those who have decisive power over how our streets look and feel.

We should also remember that our voices have gotten us here, to the point where the urgent need for a better approach is simply unignorable by those with the power to fix this.

And we know that whenever needed, we can fight harder, and we will shout louder – because we know change is possible.

Last week, we hosted Paul Steely White, the leader of New York’s legendary streets advocacy movement Transportation Alternatives, who travels with virtually no luggage but brings an invisible container-load of inspiring stories.

For example: as Paul told Wallace Chapman, in the last four years New York City has lowered casualties on its streets by 30%, thanks to a vigorous and urgent Vision Zero approach… even as traffic crash deaths continue to increase in other US cities.

Four years: that’s as long as the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board and AT have spent trying to work out how to fix this one pedestrian crossing.

In his public talk, Paul used a vivid and memorable analogy to spell out what this moment means:

“This idea that we can design our streets to eradicate traffic deaths and achieve positive health outcomes is kind of similar to what was happening in the 1850s in London and cities all round the world. Back then, if you got cholera it was just seen as part of city life: you probably got it because it was your own fault, you’re dirty, you’re Irish, whatever…

And then of course, Dr John Snow, father of epidemiology, starts applying some science, and it turns out there are some very particular ways we can design our water and sewerage systems to make cholera a thing of the past. And so that’s what we did.

We have yet to apply some of these techniques to traffic sewers. That’s not to say that traffic is as useless as sewage – but when you have traffic in an unchanneled, unfettered environment where people live, you’re going to have negative health outcomes.

All of these design elements that we now know [which address problems of health and safety], we’re getting to the point where these kinds of street designs will be somewhat depoliticized. And implementing complete streets, livable streets, will be as routine and standard as implementing a safety engineering project. We’re not going to leave the bridge engineering details to the community board [for example]; we know how to build it safely and we’re just going to do it, dammit.

This movement towards a more standard design is being bolstered right now [by legal developments like] a recent suit in New York state appellate court that found the city of New York liable for poor street design in a new and fundamental way.

This is really where it’s going. The question is, how fast will we get there, and how many people will have to die before we do it?”

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